Wyrd Words: The “Agnostic Chair”

Wyrd Words: The “Agnostic Chair” September 19, 2013

Greetings! Welcome to the inaugural post of Wyrd Words. Keeping the Thor in Thursdays, every other week here on Agora!

LIFE Magazine Photo Archive
Peter Stackpole, copyright 1939

As was recently addressed here on Agora, there was a site-wide series inviting practitioners of various religious persuasions to discuss their thoughts on passing their beliefs down to the next generation. What followed was a FLOOD of fantastic pieces, approaching the issue from just about every angle imaginable. When I decided to try my hand at the subject, my ideas were purely speculative.

If there is one thing that every parent in the history of EVER can probably agree upon, it’s that children have a way of turning your plans right on their head. So while I was confident that I knew how I would want to raise my children in theory, the application of  that theory is whole different ballgame. So, of course, as soon as I had written this piece the universe decided it was time for me to get some practice.

So, to give some context for this story, my family is an interesting blend of religious cultures. My father is a Pagan with Taoist leanings, married to my Mormon step-mother, and they live with a New Age roommate. When my wife, the Reform Rabbi in training, and my Heathen self come over, we all make quite the motley crew. (And by motley, I mean AWESOME.)

Now, on this particular occasion, I came over for dinner and my father almost immediately pulled me aside for a kind of “Family News” brief. There had been a bit of a commotion since the last time I’d visited, centering around one of my younger sisters. She had very recently decided that she was no longer Mormon, and while my family has always been very open and accepting, my step-mother had always insisted on raising her children in her church.

My sister had been exposed to a lot of different religious perspectives in her life, but she had always declared that she was Mormon now and forever. Her religious explorations were based in curiosity and the desire to be informed, but never out of a desire to move away from her mother’s faith. Thus I was more then a little surprised to hear about this change of heart.

I had always said that once my children were of age, they would be allowed to make their own decisions, which I would support in any way I could. My eldest younger sibling apparently saw fit to put that to the test. It was a few hours later when I got the opportunity to really talk to my little sister. I asked her about how she was feeling, how she thought the family had taken the news, why she had decided to move away from the Mormon church. What I expected was a careful dance in which I would desperately try to avoid making things worse by saying the wrong thing. Instead, what happened was I had the first entirely candid, adult conversation about religion that I’d ever had with my sister.

She told me that the family had taken it remarkably well, and that she felt she had the full support of everybody in the household. She told me about the troubling trends she had seen in the church, and her issues with some of the more morally questionable chapters of the Bible and the Book of Mormon. She had simply reached a point, at age 14, where her own sense of ethics was no longer entirely compatible with those of the church. Then came the big question.

“I knew there were other religions out there, but I never thought about actually being a part of any of them. I’ve always been Mormon, and I thought I always would be, and now I’m not sure where to go. There are so many different ideas. How am I supposed to find the right one?”

BAM! No dancing around that one. I had two choices; I could either give a cop-out answer like, “Oh, you’ll just know”, or I could give her a real, adult answer. I have too much respect for my sister to just cop out, so I told her the truth.

That’s a question that mankind has been trying to figure out for about fifty thousand years, ever since the earliest beginnings of religious belief. I can tell somebody about my own ideas and experiences, but they’re not going to mean anything to them. Every single adult in our immediate family practices a different religion. We could all sit down and talk about the myths we love, the meaning we find in them, and the things which lead us to our own chosen walks of life; but in the end it would all just be campfire stories to her.

For nearly two hours I explained different theological concepts like Pantheism, Henotheism, Polytheism, Animism, Universalism, and Monolatry. Her questions were endless and enthusiastic, and I enjoyed watching her absorb and process the new information with a speed that only hyperactive teenagers can manage. As we were winding down she hit me with another “Big Question.”

“If people have been trying to figure this out for thousands of years, how the heck am I supposed to do it?”  My sister is just about one of the biggest geeks that can be observed in the 14-year-old population, so I summarized my answer into something I knew she would instantly understand.

“Welcome to the Kobayashi Maru.”

After her giggles subsided, I explained that she was allowed to explore for as long as she liked, in whatever direction she pleased (including “None-of-the-above” as an option), as long as she held onto those core ethics which had guided her to start exploring in the first place, and never accepted anything without questioning.

My sister gave me a confident and determined nod.

“Yeah, I think I like my little Agnostic Chair. I’m gonna hang out here for a while and figure out what the heck is going on!” My sister’s mind is a tangled mess of hormonal teenage nerd, and I have no idea what she meant when she said “Agnostic Chair.” I can’t help but picture her, sitting comfortably in a corner where she can observe the various theological party-goers in their antics, just watching and trying to determine who she would like to go chat up.

Well HAIL, sister, you rock that agnostic’s chair! I’ll be sitting over on the Heathen Keg if you need me!

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